Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers

An Interview with Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers

After crafting comedic horror sketches that went viral on YouTube (like the infamous “Ronald McDonald Playground Slaughter”), Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers Danny and Michael Philippou made the surprising leap into twin directors chairs to create A24’s spine-chilling new psychological horror hit, Talk to Me. The Australian-set feature debuted at Sundance to high praise, and outlets like Cosmo and Rolling Stone have described it as “the year’s scariest movie.”  Capping their overnight success, the duo just received an order for a sequel.

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers
Michael and Danny Philippou at the SXSW Film Festival. © Robby Klein/Getty Images

With a combination of bootstrapped horror short filmmaking skills, newfound storytelling depth, and a commitment to pushing boundaries, the Philippou brothers have not only carved a niche for themselves, they’ve lit a path for others toiling as homegrown YouTube creators — and for filmmakers far removed from the usual launchpads of LA and New York.

How did they pull it off? The Watercooler’s Felipe Patterson interviewed the directing duo to find out.

Felipe Patterson:  You made a giant leap from making video sketches to directing a complex, big screen, psychological horror feature for a prestige studio. How did your backgrounds help you pull this off?

Danny PhiIippou:  I think that the YouTube stuff was instrumental for the practical side of filmmaking. So it was always about really sharpening our skills.

Michael Philippou:  VFX,stunts, makeup and things like sound of the music. Generating a style and just gaining experience.

Danny: But I’ve never felt that the writing was ever a strong suit on RackRacka (their YouTube channel), like it was pretty thin storytelling.

Micheal: I think “Nerf Battle” had three-dimensional characters, you know? (smirks)

Danny: (to his brother)  I don’t know what you’re watching.  (to Felipe)  So it was always really weak characters and storytelling. I knew that I couldn’t express myself fully on YouTube stuff. So to write a film and to let it be personal was very exhilarating.

Felipe: There’s a swelling sense of dread throughout the film that keeps the audience on edge — at least it kept me on edge. What is the biggest challenge in crafting, and sustaining the mood and intensity throughout the film?

Danny:  I think that that’s something that you find in the edit, a place that you can really, really hone that and find the beats, because you don’t want it to drop too much. And you want to still have those moments of the drama, but to keep the underlying tension running still.

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers
A24/Courtesy Everett.

Michael:  So I think that’s always a discussion because you want the film to work as a horror film, and then there’s a drama film — so it’s kind of like a balancing act. The initial cut went for 20 minutes longer, and I felt like it lost some of the dread. Because we really lean into the drama aspect, which is excellent, but there’s so much that you can convey just through looks and emotion that you don’t necessarily have to show and tell.

So there was a lot of stuff we cut out, like 20 minutes, and I think that helped with the pacing and things like that. Leaning a bit more into the horror, but it is like half and half [drama and horror].

Felipe: The characters in Talk to Me undergo intense emotional journeys, especially the lead, Mia, played by Sophie Wilde. With your background directing more comedic horror takes, how did you draw out these performances?

Michael: The best thing is we’re used to squeezing a performance out of friends and family who were actors in our previous videos. We have to instruct them to do “I’m scared” or try to get like little nuggets of gold out of like a false performance – and then one little nugget of something that we can use.

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers
Sophie Wilde as Mia. A24/Courtesy Everett.

Working with actual actors, that’s their whole art. So working on a character with them, rehearsing with them, being on set with them is the most fulfilling thing. But they elevate the material to a much higher level than we could ever imagine. Sophie brought it every single day, so authentically, which was so amazing. I feel like being two brothers directing is a cheat code, but then also having an amazing cast and like heads of department is a cheat code as well. Sophie’s a cheat code right there. She’s so good. She’s so incredible.

Felipe: Is there anything the viewers might miss or overlook while watching the movie?

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers

Danny:  I think that [the film] would definitely reward multiple viewings, and some people haven’t figured out exactly what happened at the end yet. I know when people start saying what happened at the end, I’m like, “That’s not what happened.” But then I’m like “ Oh, we’ve hidden something in the frame that’s so subtle, if you re-watch it and pay close attention, there’s another way that you can view the ending, which is exciting.

Michael: There’s so much through sound design and the story that I think, yeah, repeat viewings are good for people picking things up. We’ve gotten a lot of messages with people saying what they saw in a second or third viewing of the film. So yeah, watch it twice. Even if there wasn’t, you should watch it twice.

Felipe: I was going to say that you guys were great with the sound design. The sound design is what really helped elevate this movie to another level with the experience.

Michael: We had such a fantastic team like Emma Bortignon and Cornell Wilczek. There was so much collaborating with amazing artists and getting their flavor in it. I was annoyingly hands-on with some the music. Everyone’s so talented and fabulous.

Felipe: What do you think people will get out of this film?

Michael:  What I hope people get out of the film is an entertaining experience. Also, to let anyone that wants to get into filmmaking know that you can do whatever you want to do. That’s including any other aspirations people may have in life. You can do it if you just put a hundred percent of your energy into it. We rolled the dice so many times getting this film made, it’s kind of like – it’s paying off. I hope it inspires others to pursue their dreams.

Felipe: You grew up in Australia and set the film in Adelaide, where you’re from. What were some of the movies that made an impression on you growing up?  

Danny: You know, growing up, we sort of watched American films and foreign films more than we did Australian films. There’s this weird cultural cringe when you’re growing up.

Michael:  When you hear the Australian accent in the movie, you kind of go, “Whoa! Next!”

Danny: For some reason, that was growing up, but it’s only recently that we’ve really started to go back and see that we have some really raw filmmaking and some really raw films, and we’re going back and rewatching and discovering those.

Michael: He’s asking what we watched growing up, though, Danny, not the history of Australian Television. Lol!

Danny: I think that our favorite films that helped inspire Talk to Me were The Exorcist and Let the Right One and Return.

Michael: A lot of Edgar Wright, and we also love foreign dramas.

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers
Xena the Warrior Princess. C. Getty Images.

Danny: I watched Xena Warrior Princess!

Michael: Danny watched Xena the Warrior Princess.

Danny: Oh and Roar starring Heath Ledger, which came out the same time as Xena. It’s worth checking out.

Felipe:  Can you recommend any light Australian comedy “chasers” for people who are haunted by this film …and can’t fall asleep after? People like myself.

Danny: Oh my gosh. You know what’s always a good palate cleanser is Xena Warrior Princess. They shot in New Zealand. So I’m trying to think about a good comedy we love.

Talk to Me‘s Philippou Brothers
Mouse Hunt. c. DreamWorks.

Michael: You know what’s another good palate cleanser after watching out movie? This is probably not what anyone expects.  MouseHunt. I know it’s random but it’s funny, practical, slapstick humor, and I find it hilarious. There’s a part where they’re trying to shoot the mouse and then they keep shooting the whole house up in the process. So hilarious!

Felipe: Are any projects you are currently working on that we can look forward to watching?

Danny: We’ve got another horror film that we’ve written called Bring Her Back and, and I’m excited to make that next. If we can get that picked up that would be amazing.

Talk to Me is currently playing exclusively in theaters.   The sequel was just announced. You can chase it by streaming MouseHunt and Xena the Warrior Princess.

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